From Starship Troopers to Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven has always been a provocative boundary pusher. He’s a Director who’s used satirical cinema to challenge his audience and has always provoked a reaction. His back-catalogue is a chaotic and versatile bag of contradictions and in many ways Elle is no different. When Michelle, the successful co-founder of a video-game company, is violently raped in her home, her reaction to the traumatic event is far from what one would expect. Elle opens instantly amid the attack, with the first sounds the audience hears being Michelle’s traumatised screams of pain and horror. Everything that follows is a reaction to this harrowing experience. What was advertised as a revenge thriller turns out to be something much more complex, layered and contradictory as Elle pushes its audience to its limits, challenging what we find acceptable and expected from cinema experiences. At the film’s core is Isabelle Huppert in a performance which may just exceed the twisted characterisation she gave us in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. She is, and always has been, a relentlessly powerful and committed actress – challenging the audience by challenging herself in an abundance of taboo and unconventional roles. Michelle has a son and is close to her ex-husband, with whom she is open about the lingering feelings of jealousy, contempt and love that remain between them. There are many more poignant characters to be mentioned, for whom there is sadly no time for in this review, all of whom play a crucial and precise role in Michelle’s life – all helping to reveal Michelle to us in a different light.
Verhoeven’s decision to first introduce us to the film’s protagonist as a victim demonstrates his strong intention to distort and divert the audience’s later impressions of her. Michelle is a victim of sexual assault but despite this continues to be a cut-throat CEO, an exasperated mother, a lover, a neighbour and a child of two separately monstrous parents. She remains emotionally un-phased by all that has and continues to happen to her – isolating the audience from her and the initial sympathy we felt towards her. Elle is certainly designed to enrage as much as it is to engage. There are very difficult questions being asked and several dangerous impressions being made – lots of which I am still trying to process. Elle made me truly uncomfortable, particularly in its slightly weaker second half. Still, there is no denying its cinematic and technical excellence. As well as being controversial and infuriating, Verhoeven is also versatile and unpredictable – a true renegade who leaves lasting impressions. Anne Dudley has provided the sensational music for Elle, rich enough to complement the narrative and subtle enough to merge into it seamlessly. It simply cannot be over-expressed just how pinnacle Huppert is to Elle. She is a courageous and incomparable talent who is unrivalled in European cinema and for whom I have endless adoration. With all its horrors and hypocrisy, Elle is incredibly funny – witty dialogue find its way into almost every other scene, contradicting the scenarios that occur; in the same way the film’s narrative is utterly contradicted by its characters. For a film with so many opposing elements, Elle manages to feel like a technically and artistically entwined whole. It’s hard to say that I liked or enjoyed Elle – instead I am left to angrily admire it from afar.
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